LAKELAND, Fla. — Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association issued a joint announcement Thursday on rule changes that will take effect in 2019 and 2020.
There are a number of fascinating changes in the agreement — among them, changes to the All-Star election process and the Home Run Derby, the elimination of August waiver trades in 2019, and changes to roster size and the introduction of a three-batter minimum for pitchers in 2020.
Yet the individual areas of change are less significant than the fact that MLB and the MLBPA also agreed to start discussions on a renegotiation and extension of the Basic Agreement between the sides. Given that they appeared to be on a collision course that might well end in a work stoppage, the willingness to talk about fundamental questions such as free agency, service-time manipulation of talented young players, and tanking represents a landmark event.
Tony Clark, executive director of the Players Association, was in Lakeland prior to the Tigers-Red Sox game to discuss rule changes and the negotiating landscape with Detroit players. After the 2½-hour meeting, Clark expressed some hope about what Thursday’s agreement means moving forward.
“Having the conversation now, ahead of 2021, gives us a chance that I remain cautiously optimistic on to address those things before the expiration of this CBA [collective bargaining agreement],” said Clark. “I think the common ground that we were able to find here has cracked open a door to a broader conversation, and that broader conversation we believe is necessary and in the best interests of both parties.
“How things manifest themselves moving forward and the substance of those conversations remains to be seen, but it provides an opportunity that didn’t exist.”
Even so, the rule changes themselves could have a significant effect on how the game is played. Among the alterations:
■ Innings breaks will be reduced to exactly two minutes for both local and national broadcasts. Currently, breaks are 2:05 in local games and 2:25 in nationally televised games.
■ Mound visits will be reduced from six to five.
■ August waiver trades will be eliminated, with the July 31 trade deadline representing the last opportunity to deal players. Players can be claimed via outright waivers, and will be eligible for the postseason under such circumstances, but teams can no longer start trading veterans after July 31 should they fall out of contention by that time.
■ All-Star voting will feature a “primary” to identify the top three vote-getters at each position, followed by an “election day” in late June or early July to determine the starters.
“Hopefully it engages fans a little differently than how they’ve been engaged in the past, and that has a positive impact on the interest moving forward on the event itself,” said Clark.
If the All-Star Game goes to extra innings, each frame will start with a runner on second.
■ The winner of the Home Run Derby will be awarded $1 million, with the pool of competitors divvying up a total purse of $2.5 million.
That payoff caught the attention of the Red Sox players. One pitcher suggested that he immediately planned to jump in the batting cage.
Rafael Devers became wide-eyed at the thought of participating in the Derby.
“I would love to. For $1 million? That would be awesome,” he said through translator Daveson Perez. “It wouldn’t be too bad for the wallet.”
■ MLB and the MLBPA will set up a joint committee to discuss other rules changes.
■ The number of players on the active roster through Aug. 31 will increase from 25 to 26. In September, teams will be required to expand to a 28-man roster — with the 40-man monstrosity becoming a thing of the past.
■ There will be a three-batter minimum for pitchers, potentially eliminating the lefthanded specialist from the game. The Players Association didn’t want this change but agreed not to challenge it.
■ Teams must designate players as either position players or pitchers, and barring a special exception for legitimate two-way players, only those players designated as pitchers will be allowed to pitch in the first nine innings of a game. Another exception is that a position player may pitch if his team is ahead or behind by at least six runs.
■ In an effort to combat roster manipulation and an endless shuttle of pitchers in and out of the bullpen, the minimum stay on the injured list (the former disabled list) will increase from 10 to 15 days, and the minimum time a player must spend in the minors after being optioned likewise will go up from 10 to 15 days.
Moving forward, Clark anticipates there will be conversations between MLB and the Players Association about issues such as tanking and service-time manipulation. Under the current system, teams have an incentive not to call up top prospects when their skills are major league-ready simply because, by delaying a call-up, they can keep them under team control (and away from free agency) for another year.
Meanwhile, the willingness of some teams to commit to tanking has limited interest in some veterans on the free agent market.
“We think the best players should be on the field at all times, whether you’re a first-year guy or a veteran guy or anywhere in between,” said Clark. “We believe that all those players should be on the field against the backdrop of that particular club trying to put itself in the best position possible to try to be the last team standing.
“And so as a player who came up in September in one year and then magically didn’t find his way back until June of the next year, what’s happening is not new, it’s just unfortunate.”
MLB also said it wouldn’t implement a pitch clock under the current Basic Agreement, which runs through the 2021 season.